The Salt Lake Tribune, May 12, 2003
By Brandon Griggs, The Salt Lake Tribune
Two prosecutions in two years. Ron Barton, Utah’s first “polygamy czar,” knows it’s not much, but he believes more charges are imminent.
Barton is after polygamists who take adolescent brides or cheat the welfare system, and he has spent the past 2 1/2 years painstakingly cultivating sources in their shadowy world. It hasn’t been easy — he is the state’s only polygamy investigator, and there are about 30,000 Utahns living in polygamous families.
“We aren’t doing enough, I’ll admit that. If I were to quantify what we’ve done just from the prosecutions, it might not look like a lot,” says Barton, who has worked out of the Utah Attorney General’s Office since October 2000. “We’ve had a slow start, but we’re moving in the right direction at an increasingly faster pace. Things now seem to be snowballing.”
Last year, high-profile polygamist Tom Green was sentenced to 5 years to life for bigamy and child rape of his then-13-year-old bride. Another polygamist, Rodney Holm, faces an August trial on charges of unlawful sex with a 16-year-old girl he married when he was 32. Charges against one of Holm’s wives — believed to be the first woman prosecuted for bigamy in Utah history — were dropped when the complainant refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Prosecuting cases in insular polygamous communities such as Hildale, on the Utah-Arizona border, is challenging because residents shun authorities. But Barton’s sources — some of them former polygamists — are starting to pay dividends.
“The effort is really gaining momentum,” says Barton, who expects to file charges in several more cases within the next few months. “In the next year, we’ll see more results than we have in the past 2 1/2 years.”
“Getting anybody [in polygamous societies] to talk is very, very difficult. You run into silence and brick walls. But finally, some people are starting to talk,” agrees Bob Curran, co-director of Help the Child Brides, an advocacy group in St. George. “Things that people have whispered about for years are being talked about openly now.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed plural marriage in 1890 and excommunicates members who practice it, and the Utah Constitution forbids polygamy. But after a police raid on Hildale and its twin community of Colorado City, Ariz., backfired in 1952, turning public sympathies against law enforcement, authorities have pretty much left Utah’s polygamists alone. In a state where many residents have polygamist ancestors — Barton keeps a photo of his jailed polygamous great-grandfather on his office wall — public sentiment toward plural marriage has long been tolerant.
“There are very few benefits to going after [polygamists],” says Curran. “Most people here would just as soon forget about it.”
In recent years, Utah prosecutors have become more aggressive. Former Attorney General Jan Graham vowed in 1998 to crack down on child rape and incest within polygamous communities, although it took her two years to coax sufficient funds from the Legislature to hire Barton. Her successor, Mark Shurtleff, has made the same promise.
And in January, state lawmakers approved tougher penalties for men who take adolescent girls as polygamous wives. In Utah, it is illegal for an adult to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old if he is 10 or more years older and not married to the teen.
“Little by little, people are starting to realize it’s not about religion . . . it’s about child abuse,” Curran says.
State judicial nominee Eric Ludlow, a former Washington County prosecutor, saw his confirmation delayed last month over accusations that he ignored Hildale polygamists who take child brides.
Barton also credits the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping with opening some people’s eyes to the issue.
“Elizabeth Smart was taken as a wife against her will at age 15 and probably sexually assaulted. And the same thing happens every week to Utah girls in polygamist communities,” he says. “They are just as much victims as Elizabeth Smart is.”
The Attorney General’s Office has neither the resources nor the desire to investigate bigamous relationships between consenting adults. Instead, its top polygamy priority has been prosecuting crimes against children. Says Deputy Attorney General Kirk Torgensen, “We’ve told these polygamist leaders over and over that if you don’t want trouble with the state of Utah, leave the young girls alone.”
Punishing such criminals is easy. Catching them is more problematic. Prosecutors say most young brides are reluctant to come forward for fear that they will be separated from their children and banished from their communities. Potential witnesses remain silent for similar reasons. Some polygamists avoid documents such as marriage licenses or birth certificates that could be used against them in court.
“We hear stories constantly of marriages to these young girls. But we need solid evidence to go in there and prosecute,” Torgensen says. “We’ve been down [to Hildale] before, and the minute we hit the outskirts of town, everyone knows we’re there. There are not a lot of open doors.”
Prosecutors also are focusing on tax fraud and abuses of the state’s welfare system. Barton says some polygamists avoid income taxes by paying each other wages under the table. And some sister-wives drain state coffers by applying for welfare or food stamps as single mothers, he says.
Anti-polygamy groups give mixed reviews to the state’s campaign. Curran believes Barton’s efforts are bearing fruit. But Vicky Prunty, executive director of Tapestry Against Polygamy, says the Attorney General’s Office has “done a very minimal job. I like Ron Barton. But we need a lot more Ron Bartons.”
One former plural wife abhors the taking of underage brides but believes little can be done until key leaders of some polygamous communities agree to condemn the practice. Anne Wilde, who has co-authored a book advocating plural marriage between consenting adults, believes the state’s resources would be better spent on trying to prevent polygamous marriages with young girls rather than punishing offenders.
“We’re trying to educate our own community [about the issue],” says Wilde, who says only a small percentage of polygamists take underage brides. “To me, the choice of a marriage partner is one of the most important decisions a woman can make in her life. And to have that made for you by an older man just doesn’t seem right.”